Catherine Higham and Arnaud Koehl analyse the existing policy responses to climate migration worldwide, identifying a clear division in scope and ambition between wealthy and poorer countries. They call for international climate finance to be mobilised to better support vulnerable populations before they are forced to relocate.

More people are on the move due to climate change

One of the major consequences of climate change is the forced movement of people due to changing weather patterns and the long-term degradation of ecosystems. In 2021 alone, 22.3 million people worldwide were internally displaced (i.e. within the borders of their home country) because of extreme weather events including storms, floods and wildfires. The long-term degradation of ecosystems through slow-onset changes driven by climate change such as desertification, sea-level rise and increasing soil salinity is leading to a reduction in the provisioning, regulating and cultural services that human populations need to survive. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that around 3.5 billion people currently live in areas that are highly vulnerable to climate change and that more than 1 billion people will be exposed to disasters from sea level rise alone.

The phenomenon of population displacement exacerbated by climate change is often referred to as ‘climate mobility’ or ‘climate migration’. Migration can be within a country or to another, temporary or permanent, and forced or voluntary. Displacement events can be non-linear, i.e. sudden and hard to predict, and future thresholds that dictate how and where migration occurs will be impacted by trends in greenhouse gas emissions.

Population displacement can be understood as a form of ‘Loss and Damage’ associated with climate change. However, where planned and executed well, resettlement can also be seen as a form of adaptation to climate change that can provide a positive outcome for those affected, and even result in increased resilience to climate change.

Climate migration in international policy circles

Despite its evident importance, the issue of climate mobility is often not explicitly tackled in discussions about climate policy, particularly in high-income countries where migration tends to be hotly contested. This paradox was last exemplified at the COP27 climate change summit which focused heavily on the related matter of Loss and Damage but provided little in the way of concrete policy outcomes. The conference’s final agreement, the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan, simply contains the acknowledgement that parties should “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on […] migrants […]”.

A further complicating factor is that climate mobility can be tackled via a range of policy approaches in addition to adaptation to climate change, including national security and humanitarianism, meaning that policy responses are not always easy to identify. However, a recently published report from the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) provides some clarity by breaking down the potential policy responses into three simple categories: policies supporting people to move; policies supporting people on the move; and policies supporting people to stay. We looked at the Climate Change Laws of the World (CCLW) database to understand the extent to which domestic climate policy currently seeks to address these three critical aspects of climate mobility.

Wealthy countries: a narrow focus on people already on the move

Our review reveals that domestic climate policies in high-income countries mostly address the question of people on the move. For example, Switzerland’s Long-Term Climate Strategy acknowledges a future rise in migration. The Austrian Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change mentions a “reduction or control” of fluxes in migration, mandates better support of “third countries” (i.e. non-EU states), and calls for generating knowledge on international migration flows.

The focus on movement across borders has led some academics and policymakers to advocate for climate passports for internationally-displaced populations, and to call for the reinforcement of the international framework on migration to support vulnerable people –  which has now started to be taken up by some states. For example, Portugal’s recent framework climate law charges the Government to “actively defend in the context of external policy within climate diplomacy, the definition of the concept of climate refugee, its status and its recognition by the Portuguese State”.

However, a sole focus on population movements originating in low- and middle-income countries in the Global South excludes the fact that even wealthy countries are already seeing a small but significant number of climate-related internal displacements, as data from the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre shows. While such displacements might already be partially covered by existing disaster relief mechanisms, the increase in frequency and severity of natural disasters suggests more explicit emphasis is needed to tackle the climate dimensions of these events. For example, a lack of clear governance frameworks has been identified as a challenge to community-led resettlement efforts in North America, such as those in the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana.

Poorer countries: supporting people to move and to stay

In contrast to their wealthier counterparts, many developing countries have implemented comprehensive policies focused on supporting people to move to new locations or to stay in the face of climate change impacts. These tend to address all forms of mobility within the context of the adaptation, disaster risk reduction (DRR) and disaster risk management (DRM) agendas. They are context-specific and use a more diverse set of policy instruments than in high-income countries. Examples include: mandatory requirements to anticipate and adapt to climate-induced natural disasters known to generate migration, like in Papua New Guinea’s Climate Change (Management) Act; the involvement of subnational bodies and citizens in Vanuatu’s National Policy on Climate Change and Disaster-Induced Displacement, including supporting the development of disaster-resilient housing and planned relocation; and capacity-building in vulnerable areas, social protection for immigrants, and education programmes in locations receiving migrants in Ghana’s National Climate Change Policy. Furthermore, Fiji’s Planned Relocation Guidelines show that land-use planning can reinforce the resilience of coastal populations at risk by supporting resettlement ahead of disastrous events.

Addressing the policy gaps

By analysing existing policies in mobility hotspots such as Small Island Developing States (SIDS), we can both identify the gaps in obligations, planning, implementation capacity and financing that remain in these countries and understand how policy developments elsewhere are lagging behind. The IOM emphasises the need for more evidence-based decision-making in climate mobility and migration because it is often a major challenge to disentangle the causal factors of such population movements. It calls for targeted help to those most vulnerable to climate impacts first as this increases benefits for populations both in the places that people might move from and in the places they might move to.

Redirecting climate finance to support people to move and to stay

International finance schemes should be reinforced to support the leadership demonstrated by poorer countries in developing policies to support people living in areas that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change to move, or to stay. Not only is this the best way to respond to the issue of climate mobility, but it is also a way to pre-emptively address the major issues of corrective and distributive justice that arise where populations are subjected to sudden displacements.

Because climate-related impacts constrain resources, which in turn reduces the capacity of populations to relocate when needed, delayed action, i.e. waiting until people are already on the move, will exacerbate the unfairness associated with climate displacement. While some existing policies are clearly motivated by respect for human rights and human dignity, they must also be accompanied by domestic policy that addresses the possibility of internal displacements.

The provision of climate finance is vital to allow countries to incorporate responses to climate mobility challenges into development, environmental, adaptation and disaster risk reduction policies.

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